TODAY COLOMBIA – Common criminals and illegal armed groups have targeted the country’s teachers. So far this year, about 130 teachers have reported receiving threats, the Colombian Federation of Education Workers (FECODE) said. About 1,117 teachers nationwide received threats in 2013, according to the Office of the Ombudsman.
Teachers’ propensity to save their money and lack of experience in dealing with intimidation are the main reasons why they’re targeted, according to authorities.
“With the appearance of the new criminal groups [“bandas criminales,” or BACRIM] in the past five years, the threats have increased, especially extortions,” said Jorge Ramírez, a Human Rights consultant at FECODE. “Teachers are told to pay up or leave the area.”
In 2014, 12 extortion gangs have been dismantled and more than 630 suspects have been arrested for threatening or extorting educators, according to the National Police Anti-kidnapping and Anti-extortion Group (GAULA).
In February, authorities dismantled an extortion gang known as “Las Gatas,” made up of five women and a prisoner known as “JJ.” The group extorted 23 teachers in the departments of Caldas, Cundinamarca, Risaralda and Tolima.
After the women obtained the teachers’ private information, “JJ” called them. He said he was the leader of Los Urabeños – one of Colombia’s most violent BACRIM – and demanded they pay between US$1,000 and US$2,500.
Similar cases have been reported in the departments of Antioquia, Cauca, Córdoba, Nariño, Quindío and Valle del Cauca.
Teachers’ salaries are among the lowest in Colombia, which is 10th in the world in lowest-paid teachers, according to a study from the Varkey GEMS Foundation in 2013.
However, most teachers are sensible savers, according to FECODE. Additionally, nearly 300,000 teachers are members of 32 unions.
Criminal gangs and common criminals take advantage of the teachers’ behaviors, according to GAULA.
In 2013, the Ministry of Education, the government’s Victims Unit, the Vice President’s Office and the National Police designed a legal framework to combat crimes against teachers.
When a teacher receives a threat, it’s reported to the region’s Department of Education. The Department then collects evidence and sends it to the National Protection Unit (UNP), where it’s analyzed against a matrix that classifies cases as ordinary or extraordinary.
Teachers are transferred when the analysis concludes it’s a high-risk threat. Around 80% of threat analyses lead to a classification of ordinary, according to the National Police.
The legal framework has minimized threats since quick action is taken by local institutions, according to the Ministry of Education. Teachers’ families also are protected when they are transferred to another city or department.
However, the UNP analyses aren’t always accurate when assessing potential risks for teachers, FECODE said. Since 2010, 63 murders of teachers have been reported, according to FECODE.
Also, many teachers continue to face challenges and intimidation after leaving the areas where they were threatened.
Pablo Torres, whose true name was withheld for security reasons, saw his father tortured and murdered by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in 1998 in the rural area of Ciénaga, a town of about 100,000 residents in the department of Magdalena. Authorities, believing the paramilitaries wanted Torres dead, removed him from his school in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in 2005. He was relocated to Bogotá, where he continues to receive a monthly salary from FECODE since he hasn’t been placed in a school.
Torres continues to receive threatening calls warning him not to come back to Magdalena if he wants to live. The most recent came in November 2013, but the latest analysis of his case by the UNP assessed the risk level as ordinary.
In the following months, the Ministry of Education and FECODE will have a series of meetings in Cauca, Montería and Nariño to discuss this new wave of threats against teachers.
“There needs to be a comprehensive national policy,” said Ramírez, who is working with several government organizations to come up with solutions to the problem.